What Happened the Last Time a Pope Resigned

danteThe sudden resignation of Pope Benedict XVI comes as a great surprise to everyone,  with the possible exception of God.  He’s the first modern pontiff to call it quits. The last time a pope did  was in 1294. Pope Celestine V, for the record. Things didn’t work out too well after his  resignation. Matter of fact,  both Celestine and his successor, Boniface VIII, wound up in Dante’s Inferno, the first part of his Divine Comedy. Celestine appears in Canto III, in the vestibule to Hell: “mixed…with that despicable corps of angels who were neither for God  nor Satan, but only for themselves” in John Ciardi’s translation.  This is how Ciardi describes what happened:

“[Celestine V] was of saintly life, but allowed himself to be convinced by a priest named Benedetto that his soul was in danger since no man could live in the world without being damned. In fear for his soul he withdrew from all worldly affairs and renounced the papacy. Benedetto promptly assumed the mantle himself and became Boniface VIII, a Pope who became for Dante a symbol of all the worst corruptions of the church. Dante also blamed Boniface and his intrigues for many of the evils that befell Florence.”

Dante puts Boniface in  Circle 8 with the Simoniacs or sellers of ecclesiastic favors and  offices, and further down in the pit of Hell in the same Circle with the evil counselors.

“Celestine’s great guilt is that his cowardice (in selfish terror for his own welfare) served as the door through which so much evil entered the church.”

The Catholic Church today is beset by the  scandalous evil  of clerical pedophilia and by  the reprehensible cover-up of the criminal behavior.  The documentary “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God”  follows the trail of alleged  guilt   to the very  Chair of St. Peter .  Pope Benedict says he is too tired to go on.  Maybe he meant too tired to lift the veil of  secrecy.


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  • On the last point, apparently the wife of St. Paterno will bail him out. Otherwise, the question is whether there is a contemporary Dante.

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